Richard Diebenkorn, "Ocean Park no. 54," oil on canvas, 1972
By Lana Stephens
I must admit, I had high expectations when I entered the Phillips Collection, located in D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, to view the advertised “Degas to Diebenkorn” exhibition. I was more than eager to enter the space allocated to history’s most well known and influential artists. Prepared to be inspired and transported, I began my journey through the “Phillips Collects.” Unfortunately, I hit a few roadblocks along the way.
Upon entering the exhibition I became immediately confused. I asked the security guard if I was in the right place and if this was indeed the beginning. She affirmed that it was. I was greeted by a large striking Diebenkorn painting titled “Ocean Park no.38.” Call me traditional, but I expected the exhibition to follow a historical timeline, given the title of the show. I was prepared for the exhibition to commence with Degas and culminate with Diebenkorn. Perhaps the title of the exhibition is not so literal. I put my confusion aside and drifted through the intimate rooms in the large Georgian revival home, once inhabited by founder Duncan Phillips.
The home is indeed impressive. The Phillips feels less like a cold institution than most museums I have visited, even down to the security guards who dress as they please and wear simple name tags. As I lingered in the rooms, I felt as though I could have been in the intimate quarters of a long lost friend, sifting through old photographs and keepsakes instead of admiring watershed works of art. The space lends itself to introspection, which for me, renders the experience of looking at art less academic and more meaningful.
The exhibition is introspective as well. It is titled “The Phillips Collects” after all, and takes the viewer less on a journey throughout history than on a tour through the museum’s archives. Large portions of the works chosen for display were selected not because they were turning points in history or catalysts for movements, but because they mark important events for the museum. For example, a text box informed me that a Vuillard pastel portrait is the first Vuillard drawing to enter the museum’s collection. Throughout the show viewers are offered interesting tidbits about artists and their relationships to the Phillips such as “The Phillips Collection was one of the first museums in the U.S. to host an exhibition of ....work.” The exhibition seems to glorify the museum more than the artists whose work is on display, which is actually an interesting concept.
The exhibition is essentially a celebration of newly acquired and gifted works of art, showcasing the breadth of the museum’s vast collection with over 100 new additions. Names such as Callibotte, Degas, Bonnard, Klee, Motherwell, Ansel Adams, Whistler, and Christenberry are only a few to grace the impressive roster. Don’t be misguided by the title of the exhibition however, only one Degas is on display despite the huge banners reading “From Degas to Diebenkorn.” The newly acquired Bonnard sketch is a breath of fresh air however, offering insight into how the artist built his paintings. The permanent collection hosts an impressive feat of Bonnard paintings, rendering the sketch a smart acquisition.
The exhibition could have been arranged more cohesively and in my opinion, should have followed some sort of historical timeline. Works were relationally arranged (i.e. very tactile colorful paintings in this room), which convoluted the exhibition. However, the acquisitions were impressive and I especially enjoyed the black and white photography featuring the work of Ansel Adams and Minor White. Overall, it’s an impressive collection and I suggest that individuals take advantage of not only viewing the current exhibition but taking a walk through the permanent collection as well.